House minority leader Darren Jackson, D-Wake, wears a mask at the legislature in this April 28 file photo. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome) NC General Assembly
House minority leader Darren Jackson, D-Wake, wears a mask at the legislature in this April 28 file photo. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Several legislative members are asking to allow remote sessions, to avoid spreading COVID-19 at the state legislature.

N.C. House of Representatives Speaker Tim Moore has received emails and letters from five of his colleagues,  asking him to run voting sessions and committee meetings remotely as the N.C. General Assembly reconvenes this month.

North Carolina’s state legislature is grappling with how to operate in the age of COVID-19 as 21 state legislatures across the nation have adjourned indefinitely, and four others haven’t yet come back into session. Last week, Pennsylvania state legislators complained that one of their own had tested positive for coronavirus without telling his colleagues.

“I don’t want to be in that situation just because there’s a political difference of opinion over the severity of the virus,” said state  Rep. Graig Meyer, a Democrat serving Orange and Caswell counties. “If I’m going to come home and see my kids, I want to be pretty sure that I’m not going to infect them just for going to work.’

The requests to Moore, a Republican, came from Democrats that are in the minority at the state legislature. Moore’s office did not respond to a request for comment, but the House voted Wednesday to extend its previously established proxy voting option, meaning they can listen online, communicate their votes to their party leader and later affirm them. 

Other states adjourn, delay legislative sessions

To protect against the spread of infection, the New York Legislature is functioning remotely, while lawmakers in Iowa and New Hampshire are maintaining social distance, by limiting the number of staff present and meeting in larger spaces, for example. 

The state of Alaska is screening its legislators for symptoms like fever and asking questions about their travel and recent contacts. In Colorado, precautions include temperature checks, plexiglass between members’ desks and mandatory masks. 

In North Carolina, the state House’s decision to allow proxy voting was met with little opposition from lawmakers of either party.

 “This protects everyone in this body and allows them to execute their duties and continues to allow the House to evolve and continue to meet this public health crisis,” said state Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican and chair of the House Rules Committee.

At Wednesday’s session, only state Rep. Larry Pittman, a Cabarrus Republican, voiced opposition to proxy voting, citing the state Senate’s decision to operate without proxy votes. . 

“Personally, I feel like I was not elected to sit at home and tell somebody else how to do my vote,” Pittman said. “I was elected to be here in this room, to represent my citizens and to take my vote in person.”

Democrats push for remote sessions 

Meyer responded Friday, saying that remaining healthy is worth the tradeoff of having to communicate with constituents or colleagues via electronics instead of face-to-face.

“I would not be able to talk to them everyday or cast votes on their behalf if I was hospitalized with COVID,” he said. “If I’m going to do my job, I need to stay away from the virus. It’s as simple as that.”

Meyer and other minority-party members are asking for more than extending the House rules allowing for distance voting. Even with members participating via telecommunications, their leaders, some colleagues and legislative staff are still present at the statehouse, and the gallery is open to the public. Like some other states, North Carolina is screening visitors for high temperatures. 

N.C. House Democratic Leader Darren Jackson asked for novel coronavirus testing and mandatory facemasks for members like himself who still need to appear in person, even with proxy voting. 

“Almost our entire caucus is at risk,” Jackson wrote last week in an email to Moore and other House leaders. “This includes at least one member with leukemia, two with active cancer treatments ongoing, and several others with immuno-compromised systems. The math is not good with cases increasing that we can somehow totally avoid this as a chamber.”

Jackson said recommendations are not enough and testing is essential for those having to meet in person. He said many members refuse to wear masks, and have coming in close contact with other lawmakers, including touching desks of other legislators. 

The Democratic lawmakers queried Moore with a mix of evidence and emotion, expressing fear for their own health and families. 

State Rep. Susan Fisher, an Asheville Democrat and member of the House Select Committee on COVID-19, told Moore in a letter she feared for her own life and for her family, including her 88-year-old mother.

“I am not immune, not to mention having been a cancer survivor, with particular susceptibility to lung involvement with coronavirus,” she said. “I have to think that the responsible thing …is to encourage the use of technology at this time.”